Seán Moran: It won’t take much before cancelling All-Ireland looks like a solution

Covid-19 has cut through previously untouchable importance of intercounty game

Croke Park director Peter McKenna said that to limit crowds at the stadium to 200 would be play them to all intents and purposes ‘behind closed doors’. Photograph:  Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Croke Park director Peter McKenna said that to limit crowds at the stadium to 200 would be play them to all intents and purposes ‘behind closed doors’. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

There are those who may be suspicious when a weekly columnist asserts that we have just been through the GAA’s most important week of the coronavirus pandemic but hear it out.

Attitudes have changed during the months that society has endured since last March and there are indicators that the recent collective experience of the GAA community has now led to a rethinking of the association’s previously least questionable tenet – the untouchable importance of the intercounty game.

That has rested on two distinct branches of the same reality: it brings in the vast preponderance of the GAA’s revenue and provides the most potent promotional opportunities.

What has happened within the last few days has cast a shadow on these certainties.

There have already been a couple of influences in this debate, one preceding coronavirus and the other more recent. Firstly, it emerged at the time of the annual accounts that the intercounty game was costing nearly as much as its gate receipts were bringing in – in 2019, €30 million against €36 million.

In other words the accepted wisdom that the big intercounty fixtures bankroll the GAA comes with a big footnote, which sees the counties spending nearly as much themselves.

This year’s truncated season, should it happen, will clearly have lower costs for the counties but equally, income has collapsed, especially within the counties, thanks to the crowd limit of 200.

The GAA had been hoping that this would be well on the way upwards by now, with the resumption of intercounty training just a month away.

“Should it happen” is a very relevant proviso at this point. From the moment the intercounty season was scheduled to run from October to December, virtually every senior administrator you might talk to was expressing misgivings or fatalism about whether the public health situation would ultimately allow it to proceed.

That threat of new spike or a second wave is more vivid now than at any stage and that’s before the nights draw in, in earnest in the weeks to come.

The failure to shift the attendance limits is also impacting on prospects. It has decimated the ability of counties to fund their championship teams and with no relief in sight is making the GAA question the point of provincial and All-Ireland championships.

Nineteen years ago, foot-and-mouth came within a hair’s breadth of excluding Tyrone from the senior championship

This isn’t just a financial issue. Both association president John Horan and director general Tom Ryan have said separately that big matches with no -one present are a contradiction in terms for the GAA. Croke Park director Peter McKenna said that to limit crowds at the stadium to 200 would be play them “to all intents and purposes ‘behind closed doors’”.

Add to this last week’s localised lockdown in Kildare, Laois and Offaly.

The fate of those counties casts a different but long-looming shadow of similarly affected counties having to be effectively thrown out of the championship because the vacuum-packed fixtures schedule has no tolerance whatsoever for postponements.

Nineteen years ago, foot-and-mouth came within a hair’s breadth of excluding Tyrone from the senior championship and were it not for the co-operation of the other under-21 semi-finalists, the county would have been out of a championship they ultimately won when it was shifted to the autumn.

A security guard outside Croke Park when it was first used as drive-through test centre for Covid-19. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
A security guard outside Croke Park when it was first used as drive-through test centre for Covid-19. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

The Croke Park troika – Horan, Ryan and head of games administration Feargal McGill – were asked at the championship roadmap launch in June was the exclusion of counties a possibility.

Without dwelling on it too much, the answer was that it might have to be.

“Again, I will say we are 17 weeks out,” said McGill at the time. “We will be drawing up protocols for all that. It was discussed again at our Covid group meeting last night. It will require protocols to be in place as part of our competition regulations, but I don’t want to speculate on that as it sounds very negative.”

With all of these difficulties stacking up, it wouldn’t take many more setbacks before the abandonment of the intercounty championship would look more like a solution than a problem.

On the same day as the midlands lockdown was announced, the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) was canvassing its membership on the proposal to shrink the intercounty season to a February-July schedule.

This represents a paradigm shift for the GPA, which has always defended the intercounty game to the extent of attracting criticism earlier in the summer for calling on the GAA to insure players taking part in unauthorised training sessions.

When the Club Players Association (CPA) at its inaugural media conference in early 2017 called for the All-Ireland finals to be over by the beginning of August, the idea was treated as fantasy.

What has changed this year is the club experience of all players, intercounty included. With the emergency schedules offering clarity in fixtures and a good run of matches, teams have been able to focus on their clubs without interference from county commitments.

Judged against the standards of last year or even six months ago, the proposal may appear too radical but senior GAA administrators are interested. For a start, the benefit to the club game has been considerable and also the condensed championship would prove less costly to the counties.

Although the circumstances of the proposal have been created by coronavirus, the GPA idea is a long play, which is seen as workable in the hoped-for, post-Covid world.

The remaining argument about the GAA’s promotional window in August and September has already been qualified by the current experimental All-Ireland calendar, which has chopped most of September off the championship – on the basis that the club fixtures issue has now become more important.

This year continues to show how Gaelic games have managed to go months without any elite events and still retain a strong presence in the sports media even when the English Premier League was back up and running.

As an addendum, it would also be useful to ask what exactly is being promoted if the GAA’s basic activities’ calendar remains so compromised?

smoran@irishtimes.com

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